Turning around

Turning around

Ssangyong has long been a bit of a joke. Its cars were so off-beat that only taxi operators would buy them.

But having said that, it revealed a semblance of ingenuity when it unveiled the Actyon, a coupe-like SUV, in 2005, three years before BMW's equally outrageous X6 emerged.

The Actyon did little to lift Ssangyong's flagging fortunes, though. Even Shanghai Automotive Industry Corp, which bought into the company in the mid-2000s, failed to keep it afloat.

But now with India's Mahindra group at the helm, there seems to be a glimmer of hope for the South Korean brand. After all, Mahindra and Ssangyong both specialise in SUVs.

While it is too early to predict a revival like Jaguar-Land Rover's under the ownership of the Tata group, there are signs of Ssangyong turning the corner.

The new Korando launched here last year was the first. The latest Rexton is another.

What is a Rexton? In a nutshell, it is a 4x4 seven- seater about the size of a BMW X5, but costs less than half of the Bavarian multi-seat SUV.

It has all the fundamentals right too. These include a torquey Euro 5 turbodiesel engine mated to a Mercedes-inspired autobox (with steering- mounted shift tabs).

Its tall, sturdy chassis is supported by an independent suspension system. It has three drive modes: rear-wheel-drive, four-wheel-drive (high) and four-wheel-drive (low). The latter is supposedly reserved for the most challenging of terrains.

And like many modern off-roaders, it has Hill Descent Control, which manages the throttle and brakes to ensure a perspiration-free manoeuvre down steep slopes.

Its electronic stability programme keeps things on an even keel on the tarmac.

The "utility" aspects of this sports-utility vehicle are pretty sound too. The second and third row of seats can be folded almost flat. In fact, collapsing the third row is an easy tug-and-push affair. Interior space is a little tighter than the X5's but not much.

Equally important is the car's design. Unlike past Ssangyongs, the Rexton has a simple, inoffensive styling. In many ways, it looks as innocuous as the Toyota Fortuner - a Thai-made seven- seat SUV that is its closest competitor. (The Toyota costs about $17,000 more.)

While it has all the main ingredients that make a decent multi-seat SUV, the Ssangyong Rexton lacks the crucial seasonings that make it a delectable offering.

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